Memoirs – Chapter 8
London – January 1945
After six days at sea we reached Liverpool, England and were bused for about two hours to to Litchfield Barracks, fifteen miles outside Birmingham. Here a bunch of suburban houses were taken over by the U.S. Army to create a temporary personnel distribution center.
Although we were not supposed to leave camp some of us jumped the fence and went to Birmingham for a little excitement. It did not worry us to be AWOL since we had no idea what was in store for us anyway. Some months later we learned that the commander of Litchfield Barracks was a tyrant who locked up soldiers who had left camp, putting them in confinements like a concentration camp, and that many soldiers had been beaten, some having died. Someone should have warned us.
These old stone houses in Litchfield had the plumbing installed years after they had been built and, for simplicity of installation, the pipes were put outside the walls. Little did the former homeowners know that January 1945 would be so cold that the pipes would freeze, and the ice that formed in the pipes would be so strong that bubbles 3 or 4 inches in size would be formed in the soft lead pipes.
After a few days we were put on a train to London where the headquarters of Army Communications Service was located. Our group of about twenty men was housed temporarily in an “Upstairs-Downstairs” type house on Cadogan Square, a few blocks from Hyde Park. While we were waiting around for orders to move out to the field installations of ACS I started talking to the officer in charge of our headquarters and talked myself into an assignment to the supply office. Hurrah! I didn’t have to go off into the cold countryside and could stay in London at Headquarters.
Our headquarters was located in a town house at 38 Upper Brook Street, which is two blocks long, between Hyde Park and Grosvenor Square, and four short blocks south of Marble Arch. The American embassy was located in Grosvenor Square, and Marble Arch was the nearest tube station. Nearby Oxford Street is a bustling street with many shops and department stores, including Selfridges.
The residence for ACS headquarters personnel, as well as transients, was a large house about a half-mile away from headquarters.
Behind the main four-story town house that now served as the UK headquarters of the Army Communications Service was a large garden area and a separate two-story building that had been the former home’s servants’ quarters. It was connected to the residence by an underground passage.
After we discovered it, George Cline, Tony Etzi, Ed Holt, and I, who had just been assigned to headquarters, requested that we be permitted to live in these servants’ quarters and the Lieutenant said “OK.” That put us closer to the center of town and saved us the walk from the organization’s assigned residence building, many blocks away.
One block away from our headquarters was Hyde Park which, with its contiguous Kensington Gardens, is about three quarters the size of New York’s Central Park. What a wonderful location in the heart of London. The guys from my company would often go there to play baseball or some other athletic endeavor. My major effort was to sit and watch.
The edge of Hyde Park from Marble Arch corner south was an area where people would stand on boxes or platforms and speak out about current affairs, or anything else they wanted to talk about. One of the most colorful was a fellow who was called “Injun Joe.” He was still there 14 years later, when Clare and I went to London in 1959.
I settled in doing routine supply-room chores: handing out clothing, laundry, and whatever the GIs in the organization were supposed to get. We would drive in our jeep or panel truck to supply depots or to the dry cleaners in Surrey, and have the vehicles available for our own use whenever we wanted.
Although the war was still being fought on the continent there was little action here in London. Once in a while a buzz-bomb would strike, and once there was a single bomb that landed in Hyde Park, so we went to see the crater. However, there was plenty of devastation to see when we looked at other areas of the city. A large bombed out area was around St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was said that the Germans were targeting the International Telephone exchange that was nearby.
Since the work was easy for us in London, a small group of us got to see quite a bit of the city in the nine months I was there. We visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, other parks and scenic spots, and bombed out sections of the region.
We joined a couple “clubs” which meant we could get drinks after the local pubs closed at their carefully enforced official closing time. Fortunately both the Court Club and the Parkway Club that I joined were within a few blocks of our office (and sleeping quarters).
Just for the fun of it we would go outside London to the firing range and fire some captured German pistols we had acquired.
In the last few months in London I would often date Betty Gregory, a WAAC who worked across the street. We would take day trips to Windsor Castle, Kew Gardens, or a suburban swimming pool. When Secretary of State James Byrnes was in London a few of us went out to the airport and were permitted to climb around inside the plane. One time a group of us were able to take the weekend off and we went South to the shore at Brighton and enjoyed the games and rides on the pier, much like Atlantic City.
In case a telephone exchange was bombed out the British government installed emergency telephone panels in the basement of the building next door. It had phone wires going to many locations around the city. While snooping around I discovered the book that listed exactly where each wire went, and soon found the lines to the Armed Forces Radio Service. Connecting a pair of headphones to it I heard all the great American swing bands, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Harry James, as well as the British bands and singers like Vera Lynn. Since listening on earphones was not a reasonable way to provide music for our offices I connected an amplifier to the AFRS lines and we had speakers with continual music. A regular Muzak service.
I was promoted to Technician 5th Grade (like a corporal) and then Tech Sergeant a few months later, and had to twice sew on new stripes.
The communications equipment that our organization was installing (and later uninstalling) was provided by a large Signal Corps supply depot, and we had access to it. We found ways to order equipment and swap it for things we wanted. For example, we ordered a complete intercom system and swapped it for photographic equipment, getting two Speed Graphic 4×5 cameras, and a full 35 mm field set, complete with camera, enlarger, and developing materials. George Cline, who had been a photographer in civilian life, converted one of the Speed Graphics into an enlarger and we set up a darkroom. The lieutenant was thrilled to have a full-time photographer available and we had a good time, with George using the Speed Graphic and me using the Kodak 35. When we came home a year later I kept the enlarger which we used for years in our upstairs darkroom. Eventually it went to our daughter Joan’s basement in Southampton.
While in London I looked up two of Dad’s old friends. One was Sam Weinstein, Carl Winston’s brother, who was working for the army producing news films. We had a nice chat, but there wasn’t much for me to talk about.
The other was Paula Freundlich. Bob refers to the Freundlichs (See The Worthing Story, Vol 1, pg 26) as the family where Dad shared a room when he first came to America. Dr. Freundlich was an active socialist, and his daughter Paula, who was about Dad’s age, took up the cause. When I saw her in London she was probably in her 50s and she was writing for The Worker, the communist newspaper. She had been married to a Swede named Myrdal and later she married an East Indian named Ghosh, with whom Dad visited and corresponded for some years. Some years later Clare and I visited Paula’s mother for lunch, at a hotel on Central Park West. Mrs. Freundlich was probably in her 90s at that time but still very lively.
VE Day – May 8, 1945
Near the end of the war I heard that Fran Merklein’s fiancé, Vic Pantesco, had died in a plane crash. One sunny day Tony and I took a jeep and drove to the military cemetery at Cambridge, and shot pictures of the town, cemetery, and gravesite, and then I sent the pictures back to Fran for Vick’s family.
I had arrived in London in January and the war in Europe ended in May, with the biggest celebration London had seen in decades. We all drove around the city in our jeeps, and George and I took lots of pictures. I won’t bore you with scenes of England but here are a few pictures of the VE Day celebration, May 8, 1945.
The war was over for us in Europe and we had time to spare, so several of us were able to get military transportation and take long weekends in Paris, staying in our organization’s barracks there. We took lots of pictures of the usual Paris tourist sights, but the pictures that are most memorable are these two showing ways that the Parisians met the fuel shortages during the war. A car with gas tanks (probably propane) on its roof, and another that was using a charcoal burner dragged along behind to provide the vapors to run the car. I used these photos later when I was working on energy matters in Albany.
By October the officer in charge got tired of me and I was sent out with a team of men to Scotland. We drove to our company’s headquarters at Prestwick air base in Ayrshire (near Glasgow) where we sat around for a few weeks waiting for instructions. While we were waiting we had several short leaves so I took the bus to Glasgow and on one of those trips I had a portrait taken of me as a Campbell clan warrior. Eventually we were told to drive to Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland and disassemble the radio station there. It was a nice drive across Scotland but it was cold and dreary in Scotland in November, and I’ve been cold ever since. After that we drove back to London and in December were on a C47 (DC-3) to Paris.
Paris – December 1945
We flew right over Paris, and it was a sight to behold. We arrived at Le Bourget airport and went directly to our headquarters which was located on the southern edge of central Paris, right on the ring road at the Porte d’Orléans Metro station. The headquarters complex was completely self contained with an office building, a warehouse, sleeping quarters, mess hall, recreation areas, and a railroad siding that went right into the warehouse.
In Paris I was again in a team that would go out into the field, but I only did that once. We went to the new airport being built at Orly, and installed the giant 125 foot towers that were to guide the airliners to Paris. It was miserably cold and I ended up with a bad cold and fever, perhaps pneumonia. I went to bed and a couple days later I was told that they had been paging me all that time, I was wanted to drive an officer on an inspection tour to Germany. Well, I missed that. Then I went to work on persuading my friends that I should work in headquarters, and again was assigned to supply duties. This time, however, it was ordering and distributing the signal corps electronic equipment.
One time one of those 125 foot towers fell down in Algeria and we needed a replacement. I sent teletypes to all the signal depots in Europe and eventually found a tower in Belgium, got someone to go with me, and we set out at 5 o’clock one morning to drive north in our 2-1/2 ton truck. As we drove out of Paris I saw one of the most artistically picturesque scenes I can remember ever seeing. The trees hung over the road; there was frost on everything, and the sun started coming up in its pink glow. My mind rarely remembers things I have seen, but that was one of them. When we finally got to Brussels we went to the depot and handed them the requisition for the tower we wanted and they said they did not have it. The part numbers were somehow wrong on their inventory card, and the part was really a small bolt, a part of the tower. Even before computers, that kind of mistake was not uncommon! We drove back to Paris and the replacement tower was flown over from the U.S.
One day a whole train load of signal equipment arrived in the warehouse and one of the freight cars that was destined for another depot arrived with our equipment. It was filled with Bell and Howell 16 millimeter movie projectors. We had found a mountain of gold, since we could swap the projectors for all sorts of other goodies all over Europe. The major exchange we made was with a hospital supply warehouse, where we received a full soda fountain with all the necessary ice cream machines, including cans of ice cream ingredients. By mid-December we had the fountain in full operation, and I was having fun serving sundaes at night. My favorites were pineapple or strawberry sauce on chocolate ice cream. By the time I left the army I weighed 180 pounds, about 30 pounds over normal.
New Years Eve 1945 was to be a big party in our Paris headquarters. The war in Europe was already over for 7 months and it was time to really celebrate. There were plenty of girls in Paris who were also wanting to celebrate their return to peace. A large room was set up as a nightclub. We had done a big swap for champagne and everyone was allowed to buy 2 bottles of champagne, for just a few cents each. I got so sick from chanpagne that night that I have never had a liking for it since then.
Although it was cold in Paris in December and January it was warmer than it would be in New York. We spent most of our spare time wandering around Paris seeing the sights, taking pictures, and shopping for our families back home. I remember buying a bottle of Shalimar Eau de Cologne in the Guerlain shop. I carefully made a small wooden box to send it home to Aunt Ruth, and later learned that it arrived broken with nothing remaining but broken glass and the aroma.
Of all the sights in Paris my favorite was the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur high on a hill in Montmartre. I have taken pictures of it on almost every trip I have taken to Paris. We also enjoyed the Louvre museum in Paris, being able to see Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa and the statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Someone told us about the catacombs below Paris, and even told us how to enter them, so one day George, Tony, a couple other guys, and I set out to explore. We packed our knapsacks with emergency rations, maps of Paris, flashlights, warm clothing, and cameras and went to an abandoned subway tunnel. We walked about 50 feet into the tunnel and found one of the places where workers stand while a train passes by, but this one had no rear wall. We entered a small tunnel, then crossed a small stream and were in the catacombs.
The catacombs were originally mines that had provided stone for the buildings up above, centuries earlier. They had mile after mile of tunnels and an occasional large room. Since the catacombs had been used by the French resistance (appropriately called the “underground”) we discovered some rooms that had obviously been used as command posts, with electric generators to provide light and heat. On the walls we found graffiti telling who had been there and when.
For centuries, as land was needed for new buildings, the cemeteries were exhumed and some of the large rooms in the catacombs were filled with the bones from above. Occasionally there were signs indicating where the exhumations were from. The walkways had walls lined with the smooth elbow and knee joints and the unseen areas behind held the spare parts such as ribs and spines. It was fun as occasionally we would see a skull attached to the walls of bones. At one point we came upon an area that was fenced off from the section we had been exploring, and then saw a tour group that was being shown a small area. We felt special, exploring the catacombs on our own.
Throughout the tunnels we saw street signs that indicated the names of the streets above, so we always knew where we were. We could look up through long shafts to the manholes that were in the streets above, and even noted the ladder rungs attached to the shaft walls, where the resistance people had climbed out at night. We followed our maps to the area of our warehouse and went up a long set of stairs to end up at a door that went directly into the warehouse. It was a great day of adventure and we were pleased to have some fine photos of the catacombs.
Throughout Europe people in the lands that had been occupied by the Germans were starving. We had sent a team with radio transmitters to many locations, and on one occasion I gave a friend who was returning to Warsaw a carton of my unused cigarette rations to get me a camera, and he came back with a 1931 model Leica. I used the camera for years, and Joan, Cathie, and Perry all used it for high school photography class. It was finally sold in 1992 for about $70.
R & R in Switzerland – February 1946
As my time in Europe was drawing to an end there were opportunities to use up accumulated leave time at various recreational facilities in Europe. I had heard of St. Moritz in Switzerland so Don Phillips (a co-worker) and I decided to go. I plunked down $55 for which I received orders for travel to St. Moritz, a week of hotel and meals, ski instruction with equipment, and $35 worth of Swiss money. We were warned not to use any other currency or barter any Army goods.
In mid-February the train took a group of us through Basle to Zurich where we spent the night in an elegant hotel. Most of the night was spent at the Baur Au Lac, a fancy night club. Then the next day we rode the train through Chur to St. Moritz and started to learn to ski. This was before the invention of ski tows, so the day was spent working our way up the learner slope with a “herringbone” and “snow-plowing” down. Then we tried skating and curling (which is a sort of bowling with heavy iron “stones”).
That all seemed stupid to me so I quit all the sports stuff. Then, in a snack bar, we met Agnes Keefe, a Red Cross worker from Chappaqua, NY, who was also vacationing. The rest of the week was spent with Don and Agnes, seeing the town, drinking hot chocolate, and eating pastries. My buddy Don had brought peanut butter, and we saw our first bananas in over a year. Although I had never liked peanut butter this introduction to the combination of peanut butter on a slice of banana tasted good, and I’ve liked it ever since.
Going Home – March 1946
Servicemen were being returned to the U.S. and discharged based mostly on months in service, and my time came up late in February 1946. On March 5, 1946 my orders sent me with another 34 men of our organization by train to Le Havre, then on a Liberty ship (converted freighter) to New York, and by train to our U.S. headquarters at Westover Field, Massachusetts. A stormy trip across the North Atlantic in wintertime is no fun, especially in a small tub of a freighter, but the thought of returning home sustained us. The greatest sight was sailing up New York harbor at dawn and seeing the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan, and in that moment I knew how our parents had felt a generation earlier.
On March 28 the whole batch of us went by train to various separation centers, and I was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Another week was occupied with filling out papers and orientations and on April 5, 1946, after 33 months on active duty in the army, I took the train home, carrying my Honorable Discharge.
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